• by Paula Johnson, M.A. and Veronica Betancourt, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2012 •Veronica BetancourtPaula Johnson

Think back to your experiences learning science, math and social studies. Would you describe them as interactive? Dynamic? Memorable? Meaningful? Many people would quickly proclaim: none of the above. Now, close your eyes and think of the word tree. What comes to mind? Did you visualize a tree? Did your mind conjure up images of familiar trees, a park, landscape or forest? Or did you actually visualize the word tree? The vast majority of readers most likely brought to mind an image rather than the word itself. Research says that information processing occurs with little intentional or purposeful effort. The brain has the ability to organize and make sense of input based on past experiences and to spark emotions that drive connections, creating meaning in and about our surroundings (Vasquez, Comer & Troutman, 2010).

What does this mean for students whose first language is not English? When a concept is known or familiar, most English learners (ELs) go through the additional process of comprehending terms and concepts in their native language. In cases where the student is not familiar with the concept, the teacher must ensure that the message is delivered in such a comprehensible way that students integrate the concept in a new language.

When facilitated properly, the learning scene is set to then make the necessary cognitive connections toward proficiency in the new language and content. Because visual development in the sciences requires that students interpret all types of information from images, charts, graphs, pictures and scenes, helping students to identify how that process would take place is where we, as educators, come in. Furthermore, science is multi-semiotic. In other words, science goes beyond words alone to communicate meanings and ideas – it relies heavily on visual representations to express the appropriate meanings (Wellington & Osborne, 2001).

In IDRA’s recent work with San Marcos CISD and
Texas State University through a grant from the Texas Education Agency to improve science achievement for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, we identified seven umbrella research-supported strategies to help ELs achieve in the science classroom. This article describes one of the strategies: scaffold and spiral language and science instruction for increased comprehension and literacy development. All of the strategies are presented in detail with their research base in Science Instructional Strategies for English Learners – A Guide for Elementary and Secondary Grades, which is available from IDRA.

The dual-coding theory of information storage suggests that we access both linguistic and visual forms of memory to interpret our environment (Paivio, 1991). And since teaching has been traditionally linguistic-based, EL students have long relied on visual knowledge to understand concepts. Opportunities to benefit EL students linguistically are lost when teachers do not make language acquisition a learning objective.

We must take measures to ensure intentional opportunities for students to engage in visual interpretation with increased processing time for ELs, deliberate modeling and use of science genres to practice scientific communication skills, and whole class dialogue so students can evaluate their own justifications as they listen and compare their ideas with others.

One of the most powerful resources teachers can provide their students is the Interactive Student Notebook (ISN), a tool for tackling the large amount of content students must process to demonstrate proficiency over the duration of a course. Both visual and linguistic representations are utilized in the ISN so students can effectively process and connect new experiences with their own background knowledge about the context at hand. The ISN is designed systematically for students to preview, practice and process information as active participants in their learning of the content.

While there are linguistic and visual input modes, our purpose is to highlight the importance of visual interpretation in the learning process and the important task for science teachers to ensure that students become familiar with and use science-specific academic language. Imagery in science is used to elicit questions, provoke curiosity and provide a purpose for investigating a topic that can be presented in pictorial or graphical form. This provides opportunities for students to engage in academic dialogue about their own interpretations of visuals so the teacher can use formative assessment measures to identify the knowledge students bring and how they apply it to science.

Specific types of graphic organizers, such as the Venn diagram, increase student achievement significantly when incorporated consistently in the classroom (Marzano, 2001). This type of compare/contrast organizer is a perfect ISN tool because it gives students the opportunity to construct their understandings when evaluating visual representations in science. Graphic organizers provide a platform for academic dialogue between students when dissecting information in science. This is accomplished when students evaluate visual representations and construct their own Venn diagram as evidence to support their arguments of understanding.

Another essential graphic organizer that can be incorporated with purposeful intentionality is graphing of data in forms such as charts, scatterplots, histograms, line and bar graphs, and pie charts for evaluation and justification. Students should be given opportunities to collect and construct their own data sets so they can interpret how to display the collected information without fitting it into a pre-made, fill-in graphic worksheet that has little significance in the learning process. When graphs are produced in collective efforts, the outcomes of the joint efforts and shared academic dialogue facilitate students’ communication and understandings of science in authentic settings (Roth & McGinn, 1997).

It is critical to remember that the use of visuals in science is interspersed and spiraled throughout the lesson to provide students multiple opportunities to explore, construct, dialogue and justify current and new understandings of the science at hand. It is important to reemphasize that visuals go beyond scenarios to interpret and are inclusive of very prominent data structures in science, such as charts, graphs, tables, graphic organizers and content models. This range of capacity carries over into other content areas, especially in mathematics, and bolsters the 21st century skills that will hopefully attract more students into STEM-related fields.

When implemented consistently and with fidelity, all students benefit from the use of visual discovery and increased linguistic proficiency. But more importantly, traditionally underrepresented students, such as ELs, reap the greatest reward by learning to negotiate and expand their linguistic, visual and content competencies. This, in turn, catapults their science self-efficacy as students become more confident in their academic abilities and capable of maneuvering the scientific realm of understanding.


Marzano, R.J., & D. Pickering , E. Pollock. (2001). Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2001).

Paivio, A. “Dual Coding Theory: Retrospect and Current Status,” Canadian Journal of Psychology (1991), 45(3), 255-287.

Roth, W.M., & M.K. McGinn. “Graphing: Cognitive Ability or Practice?Science Education (1997), 81(1), 91-106.

Villarreal, A., & V. Betancourt, K. Grayson, R. Rodríguez. Science Instructional Strategies for English Learners – A Guide for Elementary and Secondary Grades (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2012).

Vasquez, J.A., & M.W. Comer, F. Troutman. Developing Visual Literacy in Science K-8 (Arlington, Va.: NSTA Press, National Science Teachers Association, 2010).

Wellington, J., & J. Osborne. Language and Literacy in Science Education (New York, N.Y.: Open University Press, 2001).

Paula Johnson, M.A., is an education associate in IDRA Field Services. Veronica Betancourt, M.A., is an education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2012, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2012 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]